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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Comments on Lindgren on Sowell (or Lindgren and Sowell)

Because Jim Lindgren doesn't generally open comments on his VC posts, let me take the prerogative of saying I'm not sure what he's getting at with his latest post, which makes the interesting choice of quoting Thomas Sowell at length.  (Sowell is the author of a new book on intellectuals and society of which Alan Wolfe writes that "[t]here is not a single interesting idea in its more than three-hundred pages," and that it "recycles ancient cliches about the academic world and never questions its author's conviction that those who share his right-wing views are always right."  Apart from that, the review is fairly negative.)  

Sowell writes: "The corrupt manner in which this massive legislation was rammed through Congress, without any of the committee hearings or extended debates that most landmark legislation has had, has provided a roadmap for pushing through more such sweeping legislation in utter defiance of what the public wants."  He says: "Too many critics of the Obama administration have assumed that its arrogant disregard of the voting public will spell political suicide for Congressional Democrats and for the President himself. But that is far from certain."  He adds, repetitiously: "The ruthless and corrupt way this bill was forced through Congress on a party-line vote, and in defiance of public opinion, provides a road map for how other 'historic' changes can be imposed by Obama, Pelosi and Reid."  And he argues that Obama can salvage his presidency despite the popular disapproval of real Americans (my words) if "he can ram through new legislation to create millions of new voters by granting citizenship to illegal immigrants."  Lindgren writes: "While I don’t share Sowell’s seeming hostility to an immigration bill, I do share his feeling that the current trend toward the Republicans may well stall out without their retaking the House or the Senate in the fall."

Well, to begin with, health care has been on the agenda for decades, and certainly since the GOP helped scuttle the Clinton plan (with an important assist from the Clinton administration itself), and this legislation has been thoroughly debated over the past year and change; arguments now for more time to propose something else, which showed up in the recent debate, can reasonably give rise to suspicions that they are disingenuous.  "Ramming through" apparently means winning majorities in both chambers, and "party-line vote" apparently refers only to one party, although I recall something about how many it takes to tango.  "Defiance of public opinion" not only relies on a skewed picture of public opinion, but also suggests that legislators are mere sock puppets instead of what they are supposed to be: independent deliberators who vote as they believe is appropriate and then face periodic electoral ratification or refusal votes.  The likelihood of immigration reform is perennially in doubt, so if this is Obama's nefarious plan to entrench himself in power, I think Sowell might want to hold off a bit on his dire predictions.  And I am a little unclear on why Lindgren agrees with Sowell if he disagrees with him on immigration.  Does he think such a bill will pass in time?  Does he think popular disapproval of the bill will be less than Sowell thinks it is?  

Finally, a word about tone.  Sowell is of course as entitled to his views as you are or I am or Joe the Plumber is.  No more so: like most public intellectuals, he apparently considers himself qualified to predict the political future, but he is an economist and evinces no particular expertise about politics.  But I find his ominous tone absurd, and I am surprised Lindgren (and now me, too, I suppose) gave it such prominence.  I find it premature and not especially helpful to predict that the healthcare bill will be a profound triumph and success, and doubly premature and unhelpful to suggest that it will bring the downfall of the Republic.  This is not serious and dispassionate analysis.  It's not even passionate analysis.  It's rhetoric substituting for serious thought.  One need not expect better, but what we must endure we should at least ignore. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 24, 2010 at 09:14 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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First, thank you Paul for opening Jim's thread up for comment. Because it needs comment.

I take Objector's point that more time for deliberation is always nice, but at the same time we make a mistake if we expect politics to be pristine. Madison wrote in the Federalist 55 that "had every Athenian had been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." An inclusive democracy (such as ours aspires to be) is -- likely has to be -- messy. That said, the case for the bill having been rushed is ultimately risible. How much time was spent with Max Baucus toying around trying to get votes that Grassley and Snowe were never going to give anyway? The Republicans insisted at the end that the whole process start over, rather than suggest changes or actually negotiate. They not only opposed the bill with perfect unity. They also filibustered -- prevented an actual majority-wins vote on the bill. What, short of not passing the bill at all would Obama have had to do to avoid the charge of having "rammed" it through? Must the President, with a 59 vote majority in the Senate and the equivalent majority in the House, play dead to avoid the charge of "ramming" a bill through?

The Sowell quote Lindgren endorses begins: "The corrupt manner in which this massive legislation was rammed through Congress, without any of the committee hearings or extended debates that most landmark legislation has had, has provided a roadmap for pushing through more such sweeping legislation in utter defiance of what the public wants." Most of this statement is simply false. Whether it was "rammed" through is of course a matter of opinion; I disagree. But the claim that there were "no committee hearigns or extended debates" is just not the case. Is Sowell unaware of the voluminous committee hearings (Finance AND Labor in the Senate; Commerce and Ways & Means, and others, in the House). There was no debate over this? Really? Maybe my copy of the New York Times contains different stories than the one Lindgren and Sowell read. Maybe I've been hallucinating when I watch Sunday morning TV new programs and hear them talking about -- healthcare.

There is one very good thing about this Chicken Little rhetoric. It tees up healthcare, and the Democratic regulatory agenda, as well as the political process, including the undemocratic filibuster, for the next few elections. It makes stark the voters choice. In an Ackermanian sense, it takes us beyond the realm of normal politics. We can see if the voters are really behind the Obama, government-can-help, pro-regulatory movement in an enduring way. If they are, the ideas of Sowell, Lindgren, and the modern Republican party are indeed at "a point of no return." If that's the case, it is democracy, not corruption, in action.

Posted by: Vladimir | Mar 24, 2010 1:20:11 PM

My first objection to Sowell's hyperventilation is, how is Obama going to cram more stuff down "our" throats when he has lost his 60-vote Senate majority, a majority that was necessary for passage of this bill? I guess Sowell & Lindgren don't answer that because it doesn't fit in with their "the sky is falling" narrative.

My second objection is more basic, and applies to liberals (myself included, I must say) who complained about procedural maneuvers perpetrated under Denny Hastert's House leadership; basically, this is how democracy is supposed to work. The legislature is supposed to be able to make policy. I think our veto-point-heavy system actually disserves the country in making it very difficult to set policy at the congressional level. Thus, we move policymaking to the administrative agencies, which makes the president even more powerful than s/he would otherwise be, and the courts, who have to interpret the compromises congress comes up with in ways that actually work.

I think our system would work a lot better if simple majorities were actually able to get things done. If they did stupid and incompetent things, it would be easy to fix those things. As it is, stupid incompetence has to be dealt with at the agency and court levels, which is less than ideal, and major problems that cannot be dealt with at such levels (eg healthcare and climate change) just go unaddressed for long periods of time.

So to Sowell I say, I'd actually prefer to see a lot more "party-line votes" that mean congress is making policy. Sure, we'd now have a privatized Social Security system, but if so it would a. not work and be swiftly be replaced by a new congress or b. work out fine and stick around. Enough with the reification of bipartisanship, I want more partisanship!

Posted by: sehi | Mar 24, 2010 1:04:39 PM

Objector, I have no strong objections to your objections. It is of course a much more moderate form of objection than the one I quoted.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 24, 2010 12:36:52 PM

I agree that "ramming through fast" seems, at first blush, an odd charge about a bill that's been around forever. But I don't think it can be dismissed that easily. The basic objection that someone can sincerely make (though many are insincere) is that the bill changed enough that we deserved adequate time to assess the latest amendments before voting. No one needed more debate over the core idea the individual mandate, but consider two big issues.

First, it's fair to ask for adequate time to review the latest budget estimates from the new round. New CBO numbers were out for two days or so on a weekend. Is that enough? Also, while CBO is the major player, the federal government has an official Medicaid/Medicare actuary who usually assesses the impact of laws changing those programs, like a specialized CBO. The actuary's importance is shown by the Bush scandal: before the Medicare prescription drug law was passed, the actuary ran new numbers showing far bigger costs than Bush said, and he was ordered to cover up the numbers until after the vote. This time, some members asked the actuary for a report, and he responded that he could not produce one in the timeframe before the vote. If it's awful to hide the actuary's analysis, is it good to simply prevent having one, based on time?

Second, consider the Stupak deal and the executive order. Regardless of your views on the matter, it's fair for others in his bloc to want time to assess whether the executive order really covers their concerns. It's also fair for abortion-rights supporters to assess whether it goes too far the other way, and fair for the rest of us citizens to weigh in on something so consequential. The post-passage commentary raises some good questions about whether the order is meaningful. In the end, the four-vote margin was of course achieved based on this deal.

So for all the year-long debate, it seems the following summary is true:

"A central issue in the debate was cost, pitting claims of deficit reduction against dire warnings of fiscal catastrophe. The government's chief forecaster for health care costs said he had no time to assess the current bill. Another central issue was abortion coverage, and a year of fervent debate centered not only on what the law should be, but on competing claims about the actual effect of the language. Final passage was enabled solely due to a legal manuever with unclear effects, because it was a new approach that was public for about a day."

Is that summary not accurate? If so, is it unfair to call the final push "rushed"? As a citizen who wanted my representative to have the best available data on budget and abortion effects before she voted, and as a citizen who would have liked to send my rep my views on those last-minute big changes, I got screwed.

Posted by: objector to the rush | Mar 24, 2010 12:25:25 PM

Sowell is so well known for his not so well considered views. He has been working his right wing profit center for a long time.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Mar 24, 2010 9:20:47 AM

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